Charles McCarry penned a series of espionage thrillers several decades ago. His reputation seems to have vanished into thin air, but at the time there were reviewers who praised him as a writer surpassing John Le Carré. I hadn’t thought of McCarry’s work for years, until events of the last two election campaigns triggered a faint memory, sending me rummaging through dusty shelves in search of The Better Angels.
Published in 1979, McCarry’s The Better Angels is set “in the last decade of the twentieth century.” Like Orwell’s 1984, it appears to have been bleakly prescient about the near-future, if slightly off mark with its calendar.
In brief, the story turns on a presidential election in the United States and a terrorist plot launched from the Middle East. The election, close and bitterly contested, pits a hard-right conservative against a liberal populist. The conservative candidate, former president Franklin Mallory, had installed centralized computer voting in his first term, using conventional telephone circuits. Although the network is incomplete, the largest cities in key states such as New York, Michigan, and California are on board.
Horace Hubbard, whose half-brother is chief aide to Lockwood, the current president and other candidate, has a lover who is a computer expert with U.S. intelligence. He sounds her out on the possibility of using her access and skill to swing the election. She approaches it as an intellectual challenge.
“It’s possible, then?” he said. “I mean, possible with no
conceivable trace being left?”
“I’ve already said so.”
“You don’t mind using the machines for this?”
Rose laughed. “It’ll do them good. They’ll have to stretch a
When Rose’s computerized analysis of polling data shows that Lockwood is going to lose the election, they set out to steal it—and succeed. As voting returns are routed through her computer, a small percentage in key precincts is switched from Mallory to Lockwood. The total number of votes cast remains the same, matching the number of voters who went to the polls. There are no false voters, and there is no paper trail. “At the instant the polls closed, Rose would erase from the memory of the election computers all traces of her invasion. ‘A lobotomy,’ Rose said, smiling.”
In a Rolling Stone article in June of this year [picked up on a number of Internet sites, including truthout.org], Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. lays out the case—exhaustively researched and thoroughly documented—that the 2004 election was claimed by George Bush not only through a systematic process of vote suppression and voter disenfranchisement in key states, but also through just the kind of electronic vote shifting that The Better Angels had depicted a quarter of a century earlier.
Exit polls the night of the 2004 election showed Kerry winning in a landslide. He was ahead in ten out of the eleven battleground states and—most importantly—held a commanding lead in the pivotal states of Ohio and Florida. The statistical odds for a Bush victory, based on the exit polls, were 1 in 450,000.
But when the official vote tallies began to come in, they varied widely from the exit polls. Kennedy’s sources document that in precincts where Bush was credited with winning at least 80% of the vote, exit polls showed Bush receiving, on the average, 10% fewer votes than the official tally. In precincts where John Kerry was credited with winning at least 80% of the vote, exit polls matched the official tally within 3/10 of 1%. Discrepancies were highest in battleground states and states where there were Republican governors.
Ohio, home of Diebold, is the most flagrant example. In almost half of the Ohio precincts where exit polls were conducted, they were wildly at odds with the official results—the most egregious being a precinct where exit polls showed Kerry receiving 67% of the vote, while the official total awarded him only 38%.
All of this is electronic. No paper trail. “A lobotomy.”
Kennedy ends this portion of his article by quoting Ron Baiman, a public policy analyst at Loyola University in Chicago. "No rigorous statistical explanation," says Baiman, can account for the "completely nonrandom" disparities between exit polls and official vote counts. Baiman concludes that results in which the discrepancies almost invariably show votes transferred to Bush are "completely consistent with election fraud - specifically vote shifting."
Charges like these must have been alarming for Bush forces. If you are trying to steal an election, and the disparity between exit polls and official vote counts is a telltale sign of the theft, what should your next step be? Clearly, the task is to eliminate exit polls, or make them so difficult to conduct that they lose their validity. And in light of the discussion above, what states would you target to curb exit polls? Bingo! Ohio and Florida!
In 2004, Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State, Kenneth Blackwell, attempted to bar exit pollsters from operating within 100 feet of a polling place. Florida tried the same thing in 2005. The reason supplied? Exit polling was “annoying to voters,” so it would be restricted to make voting a more enjoyable experience, thus encouraging voter turnout. Paul Huck, the District Court judge who ruled against the state, found that the restriction violated the Constitutional rights to free speech and freedom of the press. He also noted, after a review of 5,000 current complaints about harassment at the polls, that not a single one was because of exit polling. Huck’s point, implicitly, is that there may indeed be someone annoyed by the exit polls, but it’s not the voters.
In a separate study, one which turns not on exit polls but on vote projections, a research team at the University of California-Berkeley examined the 2004 Florida presidential election results. They used voter demographic and turnout data to project vote totals in Florida counties. In counties using various traditional voting methods, the projected votes matched the reported votes almost exactly. But in the 15 counties using electronic voting machines, Bush’s reported votes significantly exceeded the projected vote, especially in large, heavily Democratic counties like Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach.
And 2004 was not the end of oddness in the Sunshine State. Christine Jennings is going to court to challenge her “loss” in FL-13, the Congressional district in Florida where Republican Vern Buchanan defeated her by 369 votes.
That’s “loss” in quotation marks because, oddly enough, in the Democratic-leaning city of Sarasota, where Jennings could be expected to have done well, a whopping 15% of voters—we are asked to believe—faithfully ticked off their votes for agriculture commissioner and governor and county commissioners and so on, but somehow decided to skip entering a choice for this intense, hard-fought, much-publicized race. Not only that, but the huge undervote was entirely confined to Sarasota. A comparison of precinct results shows the undervote there was more than 6 times the “undervote” in the remainder of the district.
These voting machines, it should be noted, were supplied by a company called Election Systems and Software, not Diebold. But, again, there’s no paper trail. Another lobotomy.
In The Better Angels, you will remember, Hubbard presses Rose: “It’s possible then?” We ask the same question, not in the pages of fiction, but in a flesh and blood election: “Could this happen? Can our voting machines actually be used with to turn a loser into a winner?”
From a technical standpoint, it turns out, it’s not only feasible, but much simpler than depicted in McCarry’s work.
This past spring, computer scientists found a gaping security hole in Diebold Election Systems’ touch-screen voting machines. Ian Hoffman, writing in Inside Bay Area, says, “The hole allows someone with a common computer component [think “memory card”] and knowledge of Diebold systems to load almost any software without a password or proof of authenticity and potentially without leaving telltale signs of the change.” Hoffman quotes Michael Shamos, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University and electronic voting expert, as saying, "It's the most serious security breach that's ever been discovered in a voting system. On this one, the probability of success is extremely high because there's no residue.... Any kind of cursory inspection of the machine would not reveal it." We have found the locus of our “lobotomy.”
So far as getting inside the machines is concerned, computer scientists at Princeton University discovered that the access panel door on a Dielbold AccuVote-TS machine can be opened with the standard key that many companies supply to open office desks, file cabinets, computers, jukeboxes, and hotel minibars! If you don’t happen to have a key already that opens the voting machines, you can buy one at your local office furniture store. Or order one online. Once a machine is breached, the hacker can install a program that will impact not only the results of that machine, but act as a virus, spreading from one machine to another.
Diebold’s assurances to the contrary, we now know that it is possible—even disturbingly simple—to hack the voting machines. There is a way to steal our elections. (Read the Princeton report online at http://itpolicy.princeton.edu/voting/.)
Once we know there is a way, it is almost beside the point to ask ourselves if there is a will. How many bankers leave the entrance to their institution unlocked overnight, with the vault door standing open, and rely on the honesty of passersby to assure that nothing will be stolen? Given the disparity between exit polls and machine totals in ’04 and ‘06, there are compelling reasons to think about the will of our politicians. Would they commit the ultimate sin against democracy by predetermining an election’s outcome?
Let’s look at the record. This is an administration that lied to launch an invasion of Iraq. That brought waterboarding into the mainstream. That sicced attack dogs on naked prisoners. That held suspects indefinitely, without charge, with no chance to see an attorney or contact their families. That created a network of secret overseas prisons to hide and torture suspects. That kidnapped people off the streets. That monitors the library books you read. That illegally eavesdrops on your conversations and rummages through your e-mails. That withheld information from Congress. That gutted government agencies to install yes-men and –women at the top. That fed huge no-bid contracts to corporations that supported it. That coerced lobbying firms to donate exclusively to Republicans, on pain of losing all access. That systematically suppressed voting among African-Americans.
Is there any reason to believe, given the will to absolute power evident in these acts, that these same people would hesitate to fix an election? That they would torture human beings but not tamper with voting machines?
Heading into Election Day 2006, Karl Rove had an eerie confidence about him, while other Republicans were wringing their hands. The media’s polls were wrong, he said. Republicans would confound the experts by holding on to both houses of Congress. He had his own internal polling data, he claimed, his own secret recipe. You have to wonder if his confidence was encoded on a memory chip.
And if it did, what went wrong? If the election was rigged, how did Democrats pick up enough seats to take over both the House and the Senate?
The explanation offered by an organization called Election Defense Alliance (EDA) is plausible. When you rig an election, they point out, you want to switch just enough votes to win; otherwise things look too fishy. Organizing tampering nationwide takes time, so the voting machines had to be programmed several weeks prior to November 7. And during those weeks leading up to this year’s election, everything went south for the administration. Republican poll numbers fell over a cliff, and the thin margin needed for victory a few weeks earlier was suddenly ancient history.
The Mark Foley scandal exposed House Republican leaders’ collusion in concealing Foley’s lust for congressional pages. Ken Adelman, Richard Perle, Michael Ledeen, and Frank Gaffney—all early cheerleaders for the war—blamed Rumsfeld and Bush for the mess in Iraq. Daily corpse counts from Baghdad were staggering. David Kuo’s book Tempting Faith showed party leaders’ private contempt for the religious right. Kathleen Harris, Kenneth Blackwell, and George Allen tripped over their own tongues, committing gaffe after ugly gaffe.
Come election night, Democrats were winners. But in the House, especially, they lost a number of races by thin margins. Jonathan Simon, co-founder of EDA, compared the unadjusted National Election Pool (NEP) exit polling data with final vote counts, and found that 3,000,000 votes had been mysteriously shifted—almost 4% of the total votes cast. If those votes had not been shifted, what would the House look like? Or the Senate?
Even the Republican political consultant Dick Morris declared, shortly after the 2004 election, that the pattern of “mistaken” exit polls in battleground state after battleground state was “virtually inconceivable.” “Exit polls are almost never wrong," he wrote. "So reliable are the surveys that actually tap voters as they leave the polling places that they are used as guides to the relative honesty of elections in Third World countries....”
One wonders why the media, the Democratic Party, or we, as citizens, hasn’t taken the next logical step, which would be to conclude, “If exit polls are that reliable, and are routinely used to gauge the honesty of elections, then we are being ruled by an illegitimate government, installed in a fraudulent election.”
Part of the answer may be that, for all of our national macho posturing, we’ve become a timid bunch. The simple threat of being labeled “paranoid” or a “conspiracy theorist” is enough to bring us to heel. Someone sets the boundaries for the thinkable, and we obey them like a dog trained to stay in the yard, confined by an invisible fence. Stolen elections? That’s crazy talk!
And part of the answer may be that we’re a victim of our own self-image. We’re not some former Soviet republic or Latin American loony bin, for cryin’ out loud, we’re the United States! We’re spreading democracy abroad, not squandering it at home.
When Rose refers to a “lobotomy” in The Better Angels, she is signifying a scrubbing of the machine’s memory, or history. But the most powerful effect of the actual medical procedure is on affect, not memory. The lobotomist P. MacDonald Tow’s summary may be more apt—and more chilling—as a description of our political situation: "Possibly the truest and most accurate way of describing the net effect [of a lobotomy] on the total personality is to say that he is more simple; and being more simple he has rather less insight into his own performance. The mental impairment is greater in the higher and more peculiarly human functions. Deprived of their autonomy, initiative, or willpower, their performance is considerably better in a structured situation.” -Personality Changes Following Frontal Leukotomy
“Structured situation” indeed. And growing more “structured” all the time. Contrast our own indifferent response to fraud in the last presidential election with the behavior of one of those former Soviet republics, Ukraine, likewise in that November of ‘04.
Hundreds of thousands of citizens braved bitter cold to gather day after day in the main square of Kiev. They came to protest voter intimidation, disenfranchisement, and electoral fraud in their presidential election. Viktor Yushchenko, the candidate trailing in the “official” vote, claimed victory, called for international recognition, and launched a civil disobedience campaign. The opposition organized sit-ins and general strikes. Their resistance came to be called “the Orange Revolution,” and it culminated with the inauguration of Yushchenko on January 23, 2005.
Here in the U.S., John Kerry conceded defeat. George Bush declared that he had political capital and was going to spend it. Americans starving for change concluded that the nation had changed under their feet, “moved in the wrong direction,” and turned dispiritedly to distraction or talk of emigration.
In an odd, roundabout way, the dark forces manipulating elections may have been lucky this time around. Democrats won enough to celebrate, so show little inclination to question the election’s outcome. And they didn’t win enough to force any change through Congress that the administration doesn’t want. Like the release valve on a pressure canner, Democratic victories took the steam out of election reform. Victory became yet another lobotomy.
© Tony Russell, 2006